Tag Archives: string arrangement

Songs for Our Daughter – Laura Marling

Laura Marling’s decision to bring forward the release of her new album from August to Good Friday may have been motivated by altruism or a canny instinct on her part (or her advisors’) that a UK in lockdown constitutes a captive audience, desperate for new entertainment. Either way, it’s we who benefit, as it’s an excellent piece of work.

Previously, I’ve been somewhat agnostic about Marling’s music. She’s a very accomplished guitarist, writing serious and thoughtful music, with a high level of intelligence and craft on display. Yet, I’ve found her habit of adopting different accents, sometimes affecting Estuarial English vowels and glottal stops on her early work, singing with a mid-Atlantic twang since her third album and subsequently developing a vibrato strikingly similar to Joni Mitchell’s, distracting at best and annoying at worst. More seriously, I’ve sometimes wondered if Marling’s ability to mimic her heroes so accurately – I remain unconvinced that Nouel from Semper Femina is actually Laura Marling at all, and not an outtake from Mitchell’s For the Roses sung by Joni herself – is impeding the development of a genuinely idiosyncratic songwriting voice.

Song for Our Daughter doesn’t dispel these concerns, so much as beneath a crop of really strong new songs. There are four of five here that are pretty stupendously good, and nothing at all that’s a throwaway.

The album begins with Alexandra, a kind of meditation on Leonard Cohen’s Alexandra Leaving from Ten New Songs. With strummed acoustic guitar chords (I’m not sure of the tuning, but I’m guessing not standard) and a slight country-rock feel, it’s a breezy opener, but one that leaves a series of unanswered questions hanging in the air: “what kind of woman gets to love you?”, “where did Alexandra go?” and “what did Alexandra know?” Annoyingly, neither Discogs nor All Music have the credits for the record yet, but I guess producer Ethan Johns is playing drums (it sounds like him anyway). Though there aren’t many instruments in the arrangement, it’s full-sounding rather than sparse, with interest created by some runs on bass, a little bit of atmospheric Hejira-esque volume-pedal guitar and some prominent vocal harmonies.

Whoever the drummer is, he or she is on similarly great form on second track Held Down, playing double-stroke sixteenths on the hat and giving a lot of propulsion to a very cool groove. The rising-and-falling bass fits in nicely, the player using a pick and, I think, a mute, with a hollow-body kind of tone. Marling’s vocal is slightly drawly in the the verses, which isn’t a style I love from her, but the pre-chorus and chorus are so great, especially when she goes high register on the line “and I just want to tell you that I don’t want to let you down”, that I’m more than happy to live with it. It’s probably my favourite track on the album’s first side, in fact, for that moment alone. Nice harmonised electric guitar in the choruses, too.

The next track, Strange Girl, is built on a cool rhythm track: a sort of shuffle on the drum kit, with percussion overdubs to create a Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard kind of effect. Again, Marling is in drawly mode in the verses – more Lou Reed than Dylan this time; “never fit the playahn”, indeed – but again the chorus redeems it. In fact, it’s been bouncing round my head for the last five days straight.

The drum kit is present again on Only the Strong, but the song is led off by a Blackbird-like foot tap – one of several nods to McCartney on the album. Marling’s fingerpicking, on classical guitar this time, is really nice. She has great time and consistency when picking. It never sounds hurried or uncomfortable.

While I have a lot of time for the song musically, I’m less sure about what Marling is getting at lyrically here. In the press materials for the album, Marling speaks of how the songs are written to an imagined daughter:

“I’m older now, old enough to have a daughter of my own, and I feel acutely the resonsibility to defend The Girl. The Girl that might be lost, torn from innocence prematurely or unwittingly fragmented by forces that dominate society. I want to stand behind her and whisper in her ear all the confidences and affirmations I had found so difficult to provide myself. This album is that strange whisper; a little distorted, a little out of sequence, such is life.”

In which case, should we read all the lyrics in all the songs as Marling’s lessons to a daughter, or a younger version of herself? “Only the strong survive” is a shopworn observation, one that I don’t believe is even true or helpful. Some strong people don’t survive; they get broken. Some weak people don’t just survive – they thrive. It’s not down to how “strong” you are; it’s how much life throws at you, and your ability to cope is a function not of character or strength, but of health, money, class, race, gender – everything.

To believe that being “strong” can save an individual from all the deprivations and depredations that may befall any one of us is a curiously conservative notion. Marling seems rather too intelligent to believe such nonsense, so I feel like she, or the persona she adopts for the song, has to be setting it up as an empty platitude we’re supposed to see straight through. Yet, we come up against this idea expressed in press materials and interviews that Marling is genuinely trying to impart lessons in these lyrics. The song makes me a little uncomfortable, purely because I can’t yet figure out where it’s coming from.

But let’s leave that to one side now and move on.

Blow by Blow is piano based and beautiful. The simple piano accompaniment highlight the strength of melody and Marling’s vocal, while the string arrangement, especially the high violins in the second verse, is spine-tingling. The arrangement is by Rob Moose, who’s also worked with the National, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, but his work here is subtler than that might imply. Marling’s atmospheric high harmonies are also effective.

The title song leads off side two. Its verses are in 9/8 time, with strummed acoustic guitar in, I think, some kind of C tuning (or G with a C bass – a tuning I’ve used a lot personally). The arrangement, featuring another great string part, simple piano and bass and drums, is once again perfect for the song – just what’s needed and nothing more. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Marling is evoking Judee Sill’s Lopin’ Along  Thru the Cosmos in the line “So you wished for a kiss from God” (compare with Judee’s “I’m hoping so hard for a kiss from God”), but then, as you might guess from the name of my blog, I’m always hyper-aware of possible quotes from Judee Sill.

Fortune is my favourite track on the album. The fingerpicking, in waltz time, is gorgeous, and there are some lovely suspensions and movement in the bass. (This live video shows what’s involved in playing it.) The lyric, with its repeated evocations of running and “unbearable pain”, is one of the record’s most poignant. Musically, it’s probably the most Joni Mitchell-derived song (like Nouel from her previous record, it’s particularly reminiscent of For the Roses), but Mitchell rarely wrote in waltz time, which does give Fortune something of its own thing, as does the string arrangement.

Beginning with an atmospheric drone, The End of the Affair (which seems to riff on the Graham Greene novel) is another track that nods at Paul McCartney’s acoustic work on the White Album and his early solo records. In fact, there’s some movement that specifically recalls Blackbird, when Marling sings “I’d let you live your life” and the guitar descends stepwise under each syllable. Again, the use of reverb-laden harmonies is hugely effective, and on the line “I love you, goodbye”, as the “aahs” rise up to meet Marling’s lead vocal at the end of the song, it’s positively spine-tingling.

Hope We Meet Again sees Marling playing with some of the same chordal ideas as The End of the Affair. In the verses she alternates semi-spoken with higher-register sung lines, in a curious range of accents, with vowels from all over the map. There’s no way around it, it’s a little distracting*, but the song is still a good one, and the arrangement – bowed double bass on the left channel, pedal steel on the right, bass guitar and drums coming in late in the song – is creative and surprising.

Closing track For You feels like the only dud on the album to me right now, more due to the arrangement than the song itself. It’s a simple descending sequence strummed on acoustic guitar, with a sung bass line. Whoever the male singer is, it’s out of tune in a way that’s like nails on a blackboard to me. The whole thing is just a bit twee musically, in a way I think some fans will really embrace, but I can’t really get on board with.

Still, nine good songs out of ten is an excellent hit rate and, while I’m no expert on her career as I’ve said, there are a few songs here – Blow by Blow, The End of the Affair, Fortune, Held Down – that seem to me to be up with the best work she’s done. The record is probably stronger in its quieter moments, although the more band-oriented tracks showcase a developing interest in rhythm and texture. All in all, I’d say it’s the best record I’ve heard by her. It’s taken a while for me to get on board with Marling’s work, but this one’s convinced me.

laura-marling

*I half expect her to, Jagger-style, launch into a mockney rap about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Sound of Aimee Mann, part 4

Where were we? Ah, yes. @#%&*! Smilers does not feature any electric guitar.

Nothing betrays a weariness with the record-making process (or any process) than the setting up of an arbitrary challenge to overcome. And here’s the thing: electric guitars have always been pretty central to Aimee Mann’s music. Their role needed to be filled, and filled it was. So much so that the casual listener to the record I’ll refer from now on as just Smilers wouldn’t notice the lack of Strats, Teles and Mann’s own favoured Epiphone Casino; 15 seconds into album opener Freeway there’s a textured wah-wah-sounding keyboard part that could just as easily – OK, more easily – have been played on a guitar. Smilers’ mid-tempo songs, of which Freeway is typical, suffer from a certain lack of dynamism (possibly tied in with the lack of guitars), as well a sense that Mann is falling back on repetitive melodic phrases and unvarying end-rhyming. The two biggest offenders for me were Freeway and Thirty-One Today, which both held pivotal positions as album opener and lead single respectively.

But Smilers is not without its charms. The album’s second song, Stranger into Starman – a brief interlude featuring Mann playing a battered piano accompanied by a simple, stately string arrangement from Patrick Warren – is glorious; it’d have made a great album opener. Looking for Nothing and Phoenix are also strong, both with typically impressive lyrics, and It’s Over uses strings as effectively as Stranger into Starman. It’s Over also sees Mann venturing into the upper end of her register, where she’s less comfortable but can be absolutely devastating (as on Wise Up, for instance, or the final repeat of the words “for you” in Mr Harris, which always leave me needing to take a deep breath and steady myself). It’s just that the second half of the album doesn’t really match the first – only Little Tornado and Ballantines (a duet with Sean Hayes, whose voice is an acquired taste) really stand out, and Ballantines not in a good way.

For her most recent album, Charmer, Mann and producer Paul Bryan tweaked the formula again, retaining the analogue synths but bringing back the guitars and ditching the strings, aiming at a late-seventies/early-eighties new wave-ish sound – odd when Mann’s Til Tuesday were themselves a mid-eighties new wave-ish band, occupying a space that had been made for them by the success of bands like the Cars and the Pretenders, whom Mann cites as influences here.

Mann is still a fantastic lyricist, able to sketch a character in a couple of lines (“No one holds a grudge like a boy genius just past his prime, gilding his cage a bar at a time”, from Living a Lie, is particularly acute), and Charmer is, on the whole, a bouncier, more major-key record than Smilers. Crazytown and Living a Lie are probably my favourites from the album. The latter is a duet with the Shins’ James Mercer, while the former shows a certain bemused sympathy for the self-appointed saviour of a self-absorbed drama queen allied with the purest pop chorus Mann’s written since at least Bachelor No.2.

More outward-looking and musically varied than its predecessor, Charmer still feels like a continuation of Mann’s Smilers direction, reliant as its arrangements are for hooks and melodies on synths rather than guitars. So the news that her new record, out in a month or two, is apparently her folk-rock move is not unexpected.

We await with interest.*

 

*And we hope that the new record has a more sympathetic mastering job than the last three.

 

 

Montague Terrace (In Blue) & Such a Small Love – Scott Walker

The Walker Brothers’ first three albums had included occasional compositions by band members Scott (born Noel Scott Engel) and John (born John Maus), but those were largely lost in the midst of the covers picked out for them by Maus and producer Johnny Franz, some chosen well, others less so. For a true head-scratching moment, search YouTube for the Walkers performing Land of 1000 Dances live: Scott was not born to sing “Mashed potato, alligator, do the snake, do the hippie shake” for a crowd of teenie-boppers, and even as a young man he was self-aware enough to know it. His body language bespeaks a soul-deep wish to be somewhere – anywhere – else.

And so he only really starts to figure as a songwriter on his first solo album, Scott, although even here his own work represents just one of the album’s interweaving strands; he also tackles contemporary pieces by Tim Hardin and Mann/Weill, a couple of Hollywood movie songs, and English translations of Jacques Brel chansons. The trick is how seamlessly they blend together, how of a piece with each other Walker and Franz make these songs sound.

Such a Small Love and Montague Terrace (In Blue) are the album’s standout Scott originals, and taken together, they say a lot about where Walker was at in 1967. Such a Small Love is most notable for the disquieting cloud of dissonant strings that hang over it throughout. They’re uncannily predictive of Walker’s great masterwork, The Electrician (from the Walker Brothers’ 1979 reunion album Nite Flights), which was over 10 years in the future. The song is a minor work, but here is the sound of Walker ambitiously attempting to create a style for himself whole cloth, and damn near achieving it at the first attempt.

Montague Terrace (In Blue) is a rather different animal. Its arrangement is on an even grander scale than that of Such a Small Love, with swirling strings, crashing cymbals and booming tympani, but the sources for it are more obvious: it’s a cross between Broadway, Hollywood and Gene Pitney-style melodrama. Its lyric, meanwhile, shows a heavy, but gauche, Brel influence: the verses are laden with metaphors and similes (“her thoughts lay cold like shattered stone”, etc), while lines like “his bloated, belching figure stomps” are best left unremarked upon.  Walker would later would absorb and assimilate Brel’s influence, but at this point he could still fall into pastiching.

Yet despite its lyrical clumsiness, the song is more than sturdy enough to bear the weight of its magnificent, enormous arrangement. And that chorus is the most glorious he ever wrote. In the long, strange career of Scott Walker, Montague Terace is a big moment, in every sense of the word.

Scott

Communication – The Cardigans

Some songs don’t make sense as fan favourites only. They feel like they should belong to, be known and loved by, the widest possible audience. Probably every music fan has a list of songs like that.*

It’s one thing when such a song is by a band of indie heroes whose music is scruffy and raw, and would need to be significantly polished up to become acceptable to the mainstream. However good they are, there’s a reason why Turn On the News is known only to Husker Du fans and Unsatisfied only to Replacements fans, but even my dad would recognise Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train were Ken Bruce to play it tomorrow. There’s a reason why Rod Stewart’s readings of I Don’t Want to Talk About It and Downtown Train were hits but the Crazy Horse and Tom Waits originals weren’t. But I can’t really understand how Communication by the Cardigans wasn’t a huge hit.

The Cardigans’ discography is spottiness incarnate. Lovefool is enduringly perfect (it’s the bassline. Dear lord, that bassline); My Favourite Game is enduringly regrettable. Every album has some great moments (even Gran Turismo had Erase/Rewind), but all of their albums have clunkers and a bulk of material that’s neither really here nor there.

But Communication – from 2003’s Long Gone Before Daylight – is different. Communication wasn’t the typical indie-with-strings ballady thing you got from a lot of that era’s bands, and neither was it particularly rootsy, although much of Long Gone Before Daylight was – the drums, for example, sound 2003 (clipped and somewhat like samples), not 1973.

The record is beautifully arranged. The band are cast in supporting textural roles, other than guitarist and principle songwriter Peter Svensson, whose prominent riff features in the intro, after the first chorus and in the outro, and who gets to play rather a nice harmonised solo**. Other than that, the most notable performance by a band member is Bengt Lagerberg’s drumming, which has nice Bonham-inflected kick drum work (the influence of Bonham’s Kashmir beat is evident in those semi-quavers), but isn’t in the least bit bombastic. He could have turned this song into a power ballad but wisely chose not to, playing with Hot Rods for a smaller sound. The band merely provide the frame for Patrik Bartosch’s string arrangement – only really getting big and prominent in the final chorus, but otherwise nicely supportive to the mood and atmosphere of the song – and Persson’s vocal.

Which is where a song like Communication succeeds or fails. Her voice pushed to the very front of the mix and left relatively dry and exposed, Persson sings Communication like it’s the most important thing she’s ever had to say, and her performance is moving and feels very true. It’s what gets her over a couple of slightly awkward lines (whatever they may mean to us, Persson’s delivery insists that her words are meaningful to her), and gives such force when the band plays its two huge arrangemental aces: the triplet downbeats of “I’m talking and talking” in the final chorus and that magical moment when Persson sings “And I hold a record for being patient” while drummer Lagerberg plays the song’s most live-sounding fill and the song seems suspended in mid-air for a second until the rest of the band comes back in.
It’s a glorious moment. It’s a big moment, in some ways too big for a song that no one really heard when it came out.

Songs have long lives these days, and can return to the charts or enter them for the first time decades after release, were they suddenly to find mass relevance. Maybe some music supervisor will use Communication to score a particularly emotional scene in a TV show or film and the song will find the wider audience it’s not had up to now. Until then it remains, I suspect, treasured by the band’s deep fans.

Cardigans

*I’ll give you some of mine: Jellyfish’s The King is Half-Undressed, Big Star’s The Ballad of El Goodo, Sparklehorse’s Some Day I Will Treat You Good, No Need to Worry by the Folk Implosion

**Svensson has a profitable sideline these days as a writer, guitarist and producer for hire. Look for him among the credits on records by The Weeknd, Ariana Grande and Ellie Goulding.

Still No Clapton, Part 3 – Harder Now that it’s Over by Ryan Adams

Nearly fifteen years after its release, Ryan Adams’s Gold stands as a salutary reminder to rock journalists that they should take a breath before they reach for their superlatives. I’ve dug this quote out before but I will once again, just because of how much it amuses me: “Not since Husker Du opened for Black Flag in the mid-’80s has London witnessed such a stupendous double bill,” said Uncut when Jesse Malin supported Ryan Adams in 2002.

It’s also a reminder to me – not to trust anyone else’s opinion of art other than my own. Gold seemed to 19-year-old me slightly flat, slightly antisepetic, after Heartbreaker, which I really did love, but I swallowed my doubts and persisted. It had to be a great record, right? After all, a significant corner of the British rock press had dedicated itself to documenting Adams’s every pronouncement after it dropped, trumpeting him as Dylan’s heir, Springsteen’s, Neil Young’s even, all at once.

All very silly.

But while Gold might cause me a momentary pang of nostalgia-tinged embarrassment, it still has its charms, and Harder Now that it’s Over is among them. Documenting an apparently real episode where an ex-girlfriend of Adams’s was arrested over a fracas in a bar, Harder Now that it’s Over is a fairly straightforward Neil Young homage, with a killer solo by producer Ethan Johns.

Johns, son of the even more famous producer Glyn (Stones, Who, Zep, Beatles, Band, Eagles), is a talented guy. As well as production, and presumably at least some of the engineering, he’s credited on Gold with (deep breath): drums, electric guitar, chamberlain strings, lead guitar, Hammond B-3, background vocals, acoustic guitar, 12-string guitar, mandocello, vibes, string arrangement, guitar, slide guitar, mandolin, bass, electric piano, celeste, harmonium and congas. In fact, he started his career in music as a studio drummer with Crosby, Stills & Nash, John Hiatt and Fish from Marillion, and his drumming is certainly fine on Harder Now that it’s Over: nicely loose (Ringo loose, not Billy Talbot loose, though he cribs Talbot’s Don’t Let it Bring You Down kick pattern), with plentiful use of ghost strokes, and a soulful feel.

But it’s the solo that stands out. Johns’ break on Harder Now that it’s Over is at the end of the song*, so it has to do a lot of the track’s emotional heavy lifting; it’s the climax, it has to round things off, and in a way comment upon what’s gone before it. On such an occasion, a guitarist can’t merely go through his or her favourite licks. Beginning with a succession of simple 2- and 3-note phrases, Johns then throws in a little double-stop phrase before a beautiful, bluesy phrase, demonstrating enviable string-bending and vibrato techniques, as well as a gift for phrasing. His playing reminds me of David Lindley’s work with Jackson Browne, and praise comes no higher. But we’ll get to Lindley, in a few days.

ethan-johns-04-eric-pamies
Ethan Johns

*It’s more or less at the end of the song. Adams comes back in to sing the words “I’m sorry” three times, but essentially the song’s done once Johns finishes playing